Back to the Future

By Gary Biller, NMA President

“You might find an interesting experience on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which was reported by Automotive News a few months ago. You may recall that a limit of 70 mph was set on this superior, divided, limited-access highway, which is higher than the limit applied elsewhere in the state.”

Those familiar with the Keystone State are probably thinking that quote is wrong; the maximum speed limit on the turnpike is only 65 mph. A bill to increase that limit to 70 mph was approved by the House Transportation Committee last month, but the future of the proposed legislation is uncertain as of this writing.

So who is jumping the gun here?

That would be President of Chrysler Corporation, L.L. Colbert, but he wasn’t being prescient. Mr. Colbert made the observation in an article he wrote for Speed Age (which touted itself as “America’s FIRST Motor Racing Magazine”) in October 1952. Yes, 60 years ago.

An Illinois NMA member ran across this ancient issue of Speed Age while doing some late spring cleaning and made a copy for us. Before getting into the gist of the Colbert article, let’s note a few key events of 1952 to help define the times:

    • Mickey Mantle hit his first career grand slam
    • Elizabeth Taylor got married for only the second time
    • Richard Nixon gave his Checkers speech
    • Mr. Potato Head was introduced
    • Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected the nation’s 34th president

Perhaps Eisenhower’s most enduring achievement — the establishment of a network of freeways, highways, and expressways that formed the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways — would not be approved until 1956.

Let’s get back to former Chrysler President Colbert’s observations about speed limits of the era. He noted that Pennsylvania state police conducted hidden radar-based measurements of traffic on the turnpike and found that less than one percent of the drivers exceeded the posted 70 mph limit.

Colbert’s clear conclusion: “Given a realistic speed limit, drivers will generally drive at a pace under the posted limit.” Pennsylvania state officials maintained that 70 mph limit on the turnpike from 1941 until 1973, when the infamous National Maximum Speed Limit forced an artificially low posting of 55 mph.

In today’s traffic engineering terminology, we would say that the Pennsylvania Turnpike limit of 70 mph was set at the 99th percentile speed under 1952 conditions. That factors in tires, suspension systems, and safety technology vastly inferior to that of present-day vehicles.

I’m not one who normally gets hung up on nostalgia — OK, I admit to reminiscing a little about the Mr. Potato Head of my youth and marveling that it endures as a popular children’s toy to this day — but Colbert’s 1952 observations do raise the question of why mid-20th century traffic engineers seemed more enlightened back then. I suspect traffic engineering isn’t the issue at all. The political class six decades ago had not yet realized the tremendous revenue-generating opportunities that could be created by placing restrictions on motorists. Many of today’s public officials have made an art form out of maximizing traffic ticket revenue while making dubious claims of safety benefits.

The Speed Age editors included the following note as an intro to L.L. Colbert’s October 1952 article:

“Alabama is the thirtieth state to impose a highway speed limit. It is probably only a matter of time until all states take such action.”

Eighteen states without speed limits. (Alaska and Hawaii did not enter the Union until 1959.)

Now that is something to get nostalgic about.

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